After an emotionally and politically charged House of Commons debate on the situation engulfing Afghanistan, Sian Norris looks at the situation as it stands for women, refugees and development

The crisis overtaking Afghanistan following the US’ withdrawal was laid bare in a day-long House of Commons debate on Wednesday, as Parliament was recalled to discuss the Taliban’s takeover of the troubled country. It was the first time that MPs were asked to return to the house during a parliamentary recess since 2014. 

The Prime Minister faced attacks from all sides for failing to anticipate the catastrophic scenes and for going on holiday the day before the Taliban seized Kabul, although he returned after one day. The Foreign Secretary was also criticised for being on holiday as the Taliban advanced across the country.

Labour Leader Keir Starmer said that both Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab were “completely wrong” to go on holiday. “Speak to anybody who has any experience of Afghanistan and they will tell you it was obvious last week that we were heading to a very serious situation,” he said, calling Johnson’s judgement “appalling”. 

Johnson refuted that the Government was “not prepared” but admitted that it had been caught off-guard by the speed of the Taliban’s advance. He said that it would be a mistake to recognise the Taliban as the legitimate governance of Afghanistan immediately, saying: “We will judge the regime by the actions it takes, not its words.”

The situation in Afghanistan and the international response has been evolving quickly since the Taliban arrived in Kabul. There are many questions and concerns about the safety of people living in the country, the future of democracy and women’s rights, and the UK’s plans to support those fleeing seeking asylum. 

We will not be allowing people to come from Afghanistan to our country in an indiscriminate way, we want to be generous but we must make sure we look after our own security

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Granting Refuge 

Since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the UK has granted asylum and leave to remain to 29,184 individuals from the country and rejected claims from 32,213 people. The majority of those granted asylum and leave to remain since 2009 (when the Home Office started to record the gender of applicants) were boys and men aged under 29. 

The Government has now committed to taking 20,000 people fleeing persecution in the country under a new resettlement plan, starting with 5,000 individuals this year. 

Between 2016 and 2020, 9,883 people requested asylum from Afghanistan, of which 44% (4,322) were allowed and 56% were denied. During this period, the Government insisted that there was no real risk of harm to the general public in Afghanistan – despite frequent violence and an unstable security situation – partly explaining the high number of refusals. 

Campaigners argue that the 20,000 commitment does not go far enough. Concerns have been raised that, while 5,000 people will be welcomed this year, there is no time-scale provided for the remaining 15,000 people – with a risk that the Government could end up granting asylum to the same number of people as it does currently, over a long period of time. 

Opposition MPs have also raised how restricting resettlement to 5,000 people this year puts at risk the hundreds of translators and support staff who have worked with the UK over the past two decades. 

Labour MP Chris Bryant asked the Prime Minister: “What are the 15,000 meant to do? Hang around and wait until they have been executed?” His colleague, Labour MP Yvette Cooper, urged the Government to be “more ambitious”. While another Labour MP, Stella Creasy, asked the Prime Minister to commit “not to send people back to this nightmare” in Afghanistan.

Boris Johnson responded by saying that “we will not be sending people back to Afghanistan”. He added that “we will not be allowing people to come from Afghanistan to our country in an indiscriminate way, we want to be generous but we must make sure we look after our own security. Over the coming weeks, we will re-double our efforts working with others to protect the UK homeland and all our citizens and interests from any threat that may emanate from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan”. 

Tim Naor-Hilton, CEO of Refugee Action, said that “refugee resettlement is life-changing” but that the “commitment cannot act as a mask to hide the Government’s real intentions to effectively end the asylum system” through proposals in the Home Office’s New Plan for Immigration.

Women’s Rights

There are multiple fears about the future safety of women and girls since the Taliban has retaken Afghanistan. 

During the Taliban’s regime in the 1990s, girls were denied access to education and women were forced out of public space. Women who were accused of breaking Sharia law faced public execution, while women who left the home without wearing a burqa faced male violence.

Since returning to Kabul, the Taliban has repeatedly been asked whether it will support women’s and girls’ rights. Its response has been that, if women follow Sharia law, they will be safe and allowed to go to school and to work. 

General Nick Carter, the UK’s Chief of Defence Staff, has said that the Taliban “wants an Afghanistan that is inclusive to all”. However Conservative MP Flick Drummond expressed concern that women’s and girls’ equality is now under threat, despite the Taliban’s statements. She said that “there are already signs that women have no faith whatsoever in the Taliban releasing its grip”. Labour Party MP Debbie Abrahams said that some have been “too quick” to take the Taliban’s word for change on women’s rights. 

Reports from the ground support Drummond’s and Abrahams’ fears. In Kandahar, Taliban fighters have marched women out of their workplaces. Human Rights Watch has reported that girls’ schools are being closed, while women are being told that they cannot leave their homes without a male guardian.

Female news anchors have been replaced by Taliban speakers. The journalist Shabnam Derwan was told to leave her job – despite obeying the rules by wearing a hijab – because “the regime has changed”. At the most extreme, women and girls are reportedly being rounded up and married off to Taliban fighters – a euphemism for rape and enslavement. 

Speaking in the Commons debate, Yvette Cooper said that “women and girls are being forced to hide in their homes because they are women and girls”. 

But it is not just women’s freedoms at risk. Four days after taking the country, the Taliban opened fire on protestors in Jalalabad, killing three people. It is unlikely that citizens will have a free press, freedom of assembly, or other democratic rights. 

Cuts to Aid 

The Government has promised to increase international development aid to Afghanistan, committing to spend £286 million this year. However, despite this being double the amount it had previously committed to, it is less than the £292 million the Government was spending on aid in the country in 2019. 

This is because the Government recently voted to cut its international aid budget, breaking a manifesto promise to maintain former Prime Minister David Cameron’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak cut the percentage to 0.4%. 

Aid to Afghanistan was cut by 78%, meaning that the doubling of funding today is still a 56% cut in real-terms. 

Scottish National Party MP Ian Blackford criticised the cut to aid funding for the troubled country during the debate. Since the war began in 2001, he said, the Government had spent £27.7 billion on “failed military decisions” in Afghanistan compared to approximately £3.8 billion on development. 

“Those figures alone should make this House seriously reflect on all the priorities, policies and political decisions that have ultimately resulted in this failure, and the failure rests on the shoulders of the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary,” he added. “Billions have been invested to support these failed military decisions, and it is the Afghan people who are left paying the ultimate price”.


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